The Scottish independence debate has not so far connected or impacted on the vast majority of Scots beyond the politically committed. It is a point Alex Salmond reflected on this week in an extensive interview with Jason Cowley in the ‘New Statesman’, for his own obvious reasons, but true nonetheless.
A small but significant watershed moment took place this week with the conclusion of ‘Road to Referendum’, a three part STV series on Scotland’s recent political history presented by Iain Macwhirter (1) with - in best TV tradition – a book tie-in (2).
‘Road to Referendum’ was well made, persuasive and accessible with good choices of archive footage and a range of voices, myself included, looking back over the arc of post-war Scotland. Put on at prime time its intent was to break out of the specialist backwater of news and current affairs and what passes for political discussion north of the border, and tap into a wider curiosity and interest in Scots history, culture, identity and stories.
The long backdrop to this is familiar - Wallace, Bruce, Wars of Independence and then union. There then followed a North British high noon: Empire comes then goes, the once powerful Kirk slowly withers, and traditional industries provided huge wealth for the few before the painful decline of steel, mining and shipbuilding.
1945 is seen as the pivotal point for many of contemporary Britishness - the establishment of the welfare state, NHS and full employment, followed by the inexorable economic decline of the UK and the rightward march of its politics. Thatcher, Blair, Cameron become archetypical villains. But at the same time there is the re-emergence of Scotland: Scottish politics, the debate on an Assembly, then Parliament, but even more culturally and of aspirations for a different kind of society.
The above list has come close to being the dominant and official story of modern Scotland. It part explains why we are where we are. Why Labour were brought back to devolution in the 1970s, then became convincing advocates of a Parliament in the 1990s; the transformation of the SNP; the twilight of Westminster and the Labour state; and the importance of arts, culture and creativity.
Now this version of our recent history is like any perspective, political and partial. It couldn’t fail to be. It also excludes large parts of Scottish experience. It doesn’t address the power of conservatism across society historically and to this day, and radical Scotland’s collusion with it. Then there is the nature of much of public life and the stranglehold of entitlement Scotland – in the public sector, quangos and business life.
Along with this there is the dynamic of Britain and its appeal which is constantly changing. Scots generally were attracted to the idea of progressive Britain at the mid point of the 20th century – whether on offer from Labour or Tory politicians. And still despite their doubts and disenchantments with Westminster, there is a long-term and more than residual attachment to the idea and ideal of Britain (if not all that it practices).
Is the Scotland conveyed in ‘Road to Referendum’ the only story in town? If so does it point, however many detours and back roads we travel on, towards one direction – independence? And what about that once powerful unionist account of Scotland and Britain – which believed that the future was there for the making and filled with optimism? Does it have any relevance beyond grumpy old men trying to scare us with tales of separatist bogeymen and their own pessimism and dashed hopes?
‘Road to Referendum’ in its title and prognosis implies a linear path towards something: greater national awareness, more self-government, a less active British state in Scottish affairs. This may all turn out to be our future or it might not, but surely by talking about and anchoring our debates in this perspective we increase the likelihood that this might be our future.
Who writes history, memory and myth matters, as it informs and shapes the present and future. Scotland’s story has in the past three to four decades become one shaped by a sense of difference, identity and the purpose and practice of autonomy.
Now there are pros and cons in this. Advantages in that we care more passionately about what makes us unique, but disadvantages in that too often we seem content as a nation and polity to tell ourselves couthy stories. It is also true that sometimes the future doesn’t arrive in a tidy, straight way and instead comes with discontinuity, spikes and rupture.
The prevailing myths of modern times will play a major role in the next year and a bit towards September 2014. But we have to ask do they help or hinder us as we try to adapt and rise to the challenge of being a small nation in a globally inter-independent world?
Scotland is a land scarred by inequality, as shown by this week’s Oxfam Scotland report which revealed that our richest are 273 times more wealthy than our poorest, while London acts as a powerful vortex, distorting a massively dysfunctional and disorientated British economy and society, holding the prize of being the most unequal city in the developed world.
The Scotland of ‘Road to Referendum’ may be nationalist with a small ‘n’ but it is also conservative with a small ‘c’: an amalgamation of the myths and folklore of Labour Scotland, the Nationalist account, and the potent elite ideology of ‘civic Scotland’.
There are many Scottish stories, hidden, forgotten, marginalised, along with the stories of missing Scotland who all political traditions claim to speak for and represent. Those stories have to go beyond our current narrow menu - of constitutionally fascinating, but for most people arid, debates alongside a culture of conservative institutions and mindsets some of which seem to think they have a ‘Divine Right to Rule’ for eternity.
‘Road to Referendum’ is part of this official narrow perspective which has to eventually face challenge and be superseded. The future of Scotland, how we embrace change, address poverty and inequality, work out the rights and responsibilities of public Scotland and businesses, and nurture culture beyond economic instrumentalism, isn’t going to be answered by our constitutional debate.
Call me naïve or an idealist, but it would be good if our historic choice next year were a moment for opening up debate, challenging myths and using the constitutional question to decide what kind of Scotland we want to be. As things currently stand, that is going to require a Scots kind of quiet revolution.
1. ‘Road to Referendum’, STV, June 4th 2013; June 11th 2013; June 18th 2013, http://player.stv.tv/programmes/road-referendum/2013-06-04-2000/?yes
2. Iain Macwhirter, Road to Referendum: The Official Companion to the Major New Television Series, Cargo Publishing 2013.
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